6.11 / September 2011

How to Be a Better Girl

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If I get a pair of name-brand jeans my life in the seventh grade will really mean something. I won’t be just plain old Samantha Sievers with generic jeans and K-mart tennis shoes. And I don’t want no Hunt Club jeans, either. If my jeans are going to have a horse on them, it’s got to be Jordache. I’d take Gloria Vanderbilt, too, but what I really want are Calvin Klein jeans. Dark blue, straight legs, clean label: Calvin Klein. A label would erase me from the rest of the kids, make me somebody else. I overheard some kid from Gentry Commons say on the lunch line, “she lives in Hacienda Hills.” That kid lives on Hawk Cove Run with an extra garage door for a boat. I know they were talking about me and my throat itched to say something smart allecky. It’s that bad person in me trying to get out. The “rebel” my dad calls it. But I keep quiet because I don’t know what to say. Don’t even know where that desire to talk back is coming from only that it is there and makes my whole front side tingle and want to smack that kid silly. But I hold back because I’m trying to be good. I do the same thing over and over again. “You never learn,” is what my mom says, which is why she has to hit me with her hand or the belt or a wooden spoon because that’s the only thing that gets through my thick head. Only, now that I think about it, even hitting must not be getting through if I repeat all my stupid mistakes.

Since I switched from the Catholic school to a public school two years ago I haven’t learned squat. It’s been all repeat until yesterday when Mrs. Hildegas was going over test equations and she threw in a letter. I’ve never seen math with letters so I decided to open the book and sure enough, for the past month she’s been teaching math with letters and all I’ve been thinking about how cute Tim Randolph is, how Stacie Tyler has boobs and how much I want a pair of Calvins. I got none of any of that.

Patrice Harrison has a pair of Jordache and a pair of Calvins. She sits in front of me in math and aces every Friday quiz. Her family moved into our neighborhood at the end of the summer in a wooded lot with a style of house that doesn’t look like any of the other houses. It has a steep slanted roof and big windows.  Mom says she doesn’t “care for” that style of home. She pinches her face like she took a swallow of sour milk. And she’s not the one who minds the Harrisons living in the neighborhood, no sir. But, she’ll sigh, “property values. Re-sale goes down when blacks move in.” I didn’t know we are selling so I ask and she says no, just “speaking hypothetically.” Then I ask what about the Patels at the other end of the street. They’re darker than Patrice, but mom says it’s not the same because the Patels are family oriented. I tell her all about the Harrison family’s Friday night bowling tournaments but she said it’s different but couldn’t say exactly how and leaves the conversation right where she leaves my pleas for Nike shoes and Calvins: never mind. And a promise: you’ll understand the world someday.

I ask Patrice for help with math and she asks her mom who says it’s okay for me to come over to study after school. I flash a permission slip to the bus driver who folds it into a bucket next to the side of her bouncy green seat. One week into our friendship and here I am about to enter Patrice Harrison’s house. The place is like church with tall ceilings, a golden drop chandelier, floors that don’t have lines painted on to look like wood and ivory-colored carpet and furniture. Ivory is a fool’s color when you have children, mom says. We have plaid furniture and swirl-colored carpet to hide Kool-Aid spills and dirt. “Where’s the TV?” I think of the crush-blue velveteen sofa in our formal living room where we are forbidden to enter because we will hog it up.

“In the TV room,” she points down the hall. “It’s a spare bedroom but we watch TV there.”

“I like the ‘Cosby Show.'” It just slips out. I see the house and it feels like the Huxtables. Nice furniture, nice clothes, black family. It’s on my mind and like a scab, I have to touch it, pick.

“I like ‘Family Ties,'” she says.

I take this to mean that the white-black thing is on her mind, too, and that she means to say she likes me, too, so my shoulders drop a little and I sit in a chair that’s shaped like a clam shell. It spins all the way around.

Patrice opens the glass cabinet to the stereo, presses a button and the case glows green. “You like Michael?”

Like Michael? Michael is everything. Cute, great music, awesome moves. I told Grandma Harriet that I want to marry Michael Jackson but she said she wouldn’t wish that on my mom. Michael would buy me Calvins.

We sing and spin in the chair to the beat of the music. I get dizzy. My head doesn’t do so well in cars, buses and on any spinney rides, but I’m trying to fake it to be cool on my first visit. I hang on for one more twirl and drag my stockinged feet into the plush carpet leaving a dark ivory loop. “I don’t feel so good.”

“Close your eyes and count to twenty,” she says.

I get to four and feel the green sock-cap pull from my head. I forgot to mention: I have very curly hair. Like so curly that it just frizzes. Dad says it’s a recessive gene and mom says not from her side of the family and looks up from her latch-hook-rug kit just long enough for him to know she means his family. All my bad qualities come from him. Dad’s hair is curly too, not as curly as mine and he gets it cut real short so it doesn’t show. All of my misbegotten qualities come from Dad. He calls me Brillo and then mom calls our neighbor Mrs. Ringle who owns a beauty salon and has me walk next door with a sopping wet head and a five dollar bill for Mrs. Ringle to cut my hair like an old lady. Feeling the air against my scalp, the last thing I want Patrice to see is my hair. A girl in school wore a hat to school for two years because she was sick, so I began to wear a hat, too. Nobody asked why.  I press my eyes and body tight. “Give. It. Back.” The hat is replaced instantly. I open my eyes and see that Patrice’s forehead is all scrunched up, worried, or afraid or something and this makes me want to confess and get things off my chest: I use curse words, I want mom to get into a bad car accident, I steal squirts of my sister’s Love’s Baby Soft. I pull off the hat and wait for her assessment.

She picks up one clump. “Huh.” Then another from the other side. “Huh.” She goes around my head like this and my body melts into the feeling as no one’s really been this gentle on my hair. Usually just pull, pull, pull at the knots. “You need grease. Come with me.”

She leads me up the stairs to a bathroom that has real wooden paneling and a bench along the wall, a window in the ceiling and lights around a mirror that makes me feel like I’m a movie star.

“Sit on the repose bench.” She opens the cabinet under the sink.

“What’s a repose – ”

“A place to collect your thoughts.” She uncoils a cord attached to a metal comb and pulls out a plastic crate with tubes and jars and a mess of combs.

She takes a white cream and rubs it in my head. “Let me know when this gets hot.”

I wait on the repose bench and start to feel a tingle. The tingle goes from gentle heat to burning on fire and I yell “Hot!” and Patrice pulls me over to the tub and rinses the goop from my hair under the faucet. My scalp feels like it’s peeling off. Next she blow dries my hair then drags a hot comb through my hair interspersing each stroke with pink goo that smells like coconuts.

“This is a lot of work.”

“You should see what I do to mine.” Her hair is parted on the side and pulled back into two short braids. A curl of bangs hides a small row of pimples. “It takes work to be beautiful.” She steps back, smoothes a hair behind my ear. “That’s what they say at Charlemagne.”

We pass Charlemagne on the way to Pizza Hut on Friday nights. A wooden silhouette of a woman in an evening gown holds the mailbox at the end of the driveway of a house that has been converted into a modeling school.

“You should come,” Patrice says. “It’d be so much fun.”

Charlemagne is about as likely as for me to have as Calvins. Mom would roll her eyes and exhale from her nose and make her nostrils flare.

“Come see.” Patrice smiles and pulls me over to the mirror. At the center of the mirror is the person who I always picture in my head to be me but can’t quite make happen on my own. My hair has curls like those women who flapped in the 1920s that I saw on Dick Cavett’s “Remember When…” on HBO. And if I don’t smile (to hide my buck teeth) I’d be the type of girl Tim Randolph might like. If I padded my training bra with mom’s knee highs I might look like a girl who should have a pair of Calvins and who just might need to take a class at Charlemagne.

Patrice mentions something about math but I’m hungry so we go to the kitchen. I can see my legs through the glass-top kitchen table. The tables chairs also spin. This house is in constant motion. Patrice opens a cabinet that spins and is filled with Fruit Roll-Ups, boxed cereal and packaged cakes. My hands tingle with a surge of desire to take all of the snacks that are verboten at home. Mom likes the word verboten because it makes her feel smart because once Mrs. Ringle asked what verboten meant. Mom only went to high school and she’s working at the bank to pay for our college so we can have options. Dad says “opportunities,” but she repeats “options.” At home, I make verboten snacks like sugar bread (white bread, butter and sugar). Patrice takes out Strawberry Honeycomb, opens the top and digs her hand into what sounds like a full box. She extends the box to me and I take a heaping handful and a few combs drop on the table.

“Take it easy,” she says. “There’s more.”

My mouth becomes all watery on the first crunch. Mom buys us “Combs of Honey” that come in a plastic bag with a label that has red scissors over the words “Cost Cutter.” Our entire pantry is filled with yellow labeled Cost Cutter food. Dad put a stop to Cost Cutter when his Meister Brau was switched for Cost Cutter. “A man can’t drink from a yellow can that reads ‘Beer.'” I feel like I’m swimming in a strawberry pool. Lovely Strawberry Honeycombs, as delicious as advertised between Saturday morning cartoons. So much better than “Cost Cutter Combs of Honey.” I dig my hand into the box for a second helping and a piece of cereal drops and falls on top of a grocery bag of clothes next to the table. A pair of Calvin Klein jeans is folded on top. The cereal drops from my hand onto a wicker place mat and I lean over to lift the jeans out of the bag. I unfold the jeans, they only come to my ankles.

Patrice puts the box in the pantry and searches for more snacks.

I pull the jeans closer, the label specifically, and see that the stitching on the right unravels ever so slightly so I give a gentle tug on the thread and another two stitches unwind. The label pulls away from the denim. “Hey, what are you doing with these?”

She moves boxes and cans hunting for the perfect snack. “Theye’re for my cousin.”

“This label is falling off.” I hold up the jeans to show her.

She hands me a cherry-flavored Fruit Roll-Up. “What are you going to do with a label?”

“I could sew it on these.” I twist half-way around and pull up my shirt that covers my butt and reveal large red roses and green thorny stems stitched into both pockets.

“What about the flowers?”

Sometimes people have no vision. No imagination. This exasperates me so I sigh and say, “I’ll pull out the thread. Look, the sides here have two rows of white stitches, just like Calvins.”

Patrice gives me a paper grocery bag to carry home some hair grease, an old hot comb and the Calvin label, which I’m not trusting to anything so I zip it inside of the plastic pencil holder of my Trapper Keeper and tuck it under my arm. The Harrisons have the first house in the coveted wooded area. There’s a big stretch of empty dirt that used to be farm fields until the Tillman clan “divested.” We live on the main street in Hacienda Hills and mom wishes like anything it was back on a cul de sac where cars couldn’t drive up and down “like it’s a drag strip.” There are only two other houses that look like ours, but they’re on the older end in the neighborhood where there are big cracks in the pavement, but I like our house okay. We all have our own bedroom, except my parents who share theirs unless dad comes home late from coaching a football game and then he pulls out the bed in the sofa and sleeps there, which is okay by me because then on Saturday mornings we watch cartoons. I learned last year how babies are made but it occurs to me at this moment that my parents did it three times and I don’t like that thought at all so I start counting garage doors. Every house has a two-car garage, which makes mom’s chin tilt up as we drive by the other neighborhood, Hacienda Terrace, that has only one-car garages and some with (she does her tsks at this one) gravel driveways. Things like garage doors and driveways effect resale value and it’s a good thing Hacienda Terrace is not connected to our neighborhood, otherwise the speed of cars going past our house would be unbearable. Intolerable, Grandma Harriet always adds.

A few weeks go by and me going to Patrice’s house after school becomes a regular thing. My math grades haven’t improved because we listen to music or she teaches me modeling tricks like walking to own the room. Right leg leads and right shoulder follows. Strut. Strut. Shoulder.

We have the same block of classes and we sit by each other all the time. I write notes to her during class, mostly about Tim Randolph or what Stacie Tyler is wearing or what I saw last night on TV.

On Fridays I’m supposed to be home by 4:30 (half hour earlier than usual) so mom can drive me to dad’s football game. He used to teach at a Catholic school and coach the team there but then he was offered a public high school job and it doubled his salary and moved us from a rental house to a home of our own. Dad says working for the Catholic Church is a calling but mom says it’s time to get realistic and invest in our future. The team has won two games and lost two games. I ask if I can skip this game and go to bowling night with Patrice and her family but the alley is on a side of town that mom calls rough. I ask a hundred times if Patrice can come with us but mom says not this season. Maybe next year when dad’s job is more secure. We need to have a winning season.

On this Friday afternoon, Patrice’s mother and her Aunt Janelle sit at the kitchen table. A suitcase is open on the floor and holds combs, brushes and hair rollers. On the table are old butter tubs with beads. Mrs. Harrison hugs Patrice and kisses the top of her head, asks how the day was and if she found the note in her lunch bag. Aunt Janelle wears two knit shirts with the collars up (Polo!). Her boobs are large like Grandma Harriet’s and she has five gold chains that get lost between her crease. Her jeans are tight and zip at the ankles, a triangle patch is on the right pocket and reads, “Guess?” I haven’t seen that kind before, but they look great. Dark and tight.

“What happened to the label on those jeans for your cousin?”

Patrice and I both look to the floor and without seeing it for myself, I can well tell that her mom is burning a hole into my head with her eyes.

Mrs. Harrison lifts Patrice’s chin. “You know she doesn’t have much. I want that label back, ‘Trice. Second-hand clothes shouldn’t feel second-hand. All right?”

Patrice nods and her arms stiffen like she’s about to cry.

“We’re going to braid your hair,” her mom says.

This gets my attention so I raise my eyes from the floor and ask, “Me too?”

Her mom looks at Aunt Janelle who pulls at my hair to see if it’s long enough.

“Is her daddy – ?” Aunt Janelle says to Patrice’s mom who shakes her head. “Momma?”

I know what she’s getting at and it makes my insides warm that she thinks I could be one of them because I’ve never felt like I belong anywhere. Maybe I could be a Harrison who bowls on Friday nights. “Recessive gene,” I say, which makes them laugh. Patrice tells me I’m crazy and to pick out beads. I choose green and red because that’s my dad’s team colors, the Fighting Warriors of Kekionga High.

“We’re having cornrow,” Patrice says. “Like rows of corn.”

Aunt Janelle pulls and twists and knots my hair into dozens of braids. It hurts but Patrice is in front of me as her mom does the same to her (pink and white beads to match her pink and white Nikes) so I fight the urge to cry. Every now and then our stockinged feet touch and we play car until her mom says, “‘Trice. Focus.” She says that a lot. Focus is her favorite word. My mom’s favorite word is “apple-pie order.” Mrs. Harrison says Patrice should focus on her studies; her studies will make her successful. My mom says my room better be in apple-pie order by the time she gets home from the bank or else. A tidy room is mom’s idea on what will make me not be a heathen. I can clean my room in less than five minutes by shoving everything under the bed and stuffing my closet full of wadded up hand-me-downs.

Thinking about time makes me check the oven clock. The number flips to 4:37. I’m late.

“I gotta go.” My heart pounds in my chest and ears ring.

Aunt Janelle presses on my shoulders. “One more bead.”

Mrs. Harrison tells me to relax, that it’s only a few minutes and offers to call my mom.

“That’s okay.” I put the unused beads back into the tub. “I really need to go. Thank you for the braids.” I slip on my sneakers and sprint home through the empty lots that have plastic pipes sticking out.  I break into a sweat even though my sleeves are zipped out from my coat and the winds are strong and sky is dark gray. The hair beads make a clickety clack sound with every bounce. My left instep aches every time my foot touches down. The shoes give and slip on rocks and mud.

The garage door is open and the automatic opener light is still on, so mom must’ve just pulled the orange station wagon into the garage. The trunk is open with one bag. I take the bag, it’s light with iceberg lettuce, white bread and eggs. The clock in the garage reads 4:51. The garage door opens and I hear mom’s panting from having moved groceries around. I step to the side of the car and her eyes open wide like she’s watching a scary movie. I want to say that it’s just me, but when I take a step the beads click and I remember the cornrows. She turns around, presses the garage door button and the door lowers. That’s when I know I’m in for it. Especially when we get to the kitchen and she shuts both windows. Neighbors. She never wants them to hear.

She lets me set the bag down on the counter before she begins, to protect the eggs and bread. I thought time would be the issue. I am late, but she is focused on my hair.

“I can’t take you to your father’s game looking like that.” She smacks my arm and the skin turns bright red and stings. “Is that what you want to be?” She shoves me against the wall and the indoor temperature gauge that’s nailed to the wall stabs into my back. I raise my arms to protect my face. It’s the face smacks where the redness lasts the longest and throbs the worst. Arms are okay. Back is not as bad. The butt and upper legs are a piece of cake by now. I can shut off feeling there with no problem. When it happens, I focus on other things. Sing “P.Y.T.” to myself or think about how one day I won’t be here and then they’ll be sorry.

“You want to be a goddamn pickaninny?” she asks.

Grandma Harriet calls Buckwheat from TV re-runs of “Our Gang” a pickaninny so I know exactly what mom’s talking about. But Patrice isn’t like Buckwheat at all and I try to say, “but but but.” She smacks my arms and then holds one down to get me in the face, but it also gives me a full view of her. Her face is all twisted and tired like an end-of-the-week dishrag. I can’t move as the blood pulses at the hit marks and my stomach churns knowing that I make her hit me. Pray to God or a Saint or somebody to make me a better girl. A pretty girl with straight hair and Calvins.

Mom finishes up helping me to be a better girl and then goes to the kitchen phone and puts on her best work voice, her deeper more convinced bank teller’s voice and calls Mrs. Ringle then sends me over to her house with a five dollar check.

On Monday Patrice isn’t in morning block classes so I write her a note telling her all about why I’m wearing my hat again and how Mrs. Ringle unraveled the braids and cut my hair just like Dad’s hair. Mrs. Ringle tugged and pulled and made all kinds of gasps trying to learn how the beads worked with the elastics and kept wiping her hands on a wet towel from the grease in my hair. I hate Mrs. Ringle more than anyone in the whole wide world. We’re watching parts of the TV miniseries The North and the South in Mr. Berger’s history class but I saw most of it last night at home (even the sex scenes). Mr. Berger fast forwards to the historical stuff. Patrice is not at lunch either so it leaves me with no table. Makaarim Amed, the grossest girl in school who everyone calls “Kim,” walks in front of me in the lunch line. She lives in Hacienda Terrace, the neighborhood sign is on her front lawn and she has a gravel driveway. She’s always tan and has big white and pink pimples all over her greasy face. The clerk rings up $0 instead of seventy-five cents. Makaarim gets a free lunch. Her bony body hunches over the green plastic tray. She walks slowly and makes me lose my chance for a seat at Stacie Taylor’s table so I give Makaarim’s shoulder a good hard shove. She turns her head, mouth open trying to figure out what’s going on and she looks so stupid and the first shove felt so good that I do it again. Then a firm hand squeezes my shoulder. Principal Mathers. A fat man with a full gray and white beard, loads of English Leather cologne like my dad and a striped blue and yellow principal tie that’s anchored under his third chin so tightly it turns his face red. He tells me to put down my tray and takes me by my elbow, pinching right between the bones, and in his office tells me young ladies do not comport themselves in this manner.

“But she was the one.” I try to get this information into his big fat head. I lost a seat at Stacie Taylor’s table. I fold my arms to let him know I’m finished.

“Samantha. Imposing oneself physically on someone doesn’t change a person’s behavior.”

I don’t believe him one bit because mom says it does work. It will work.

Last class of the afternoon I have shop and Patrice has gym. We’re making wooden benches and today we sand. I sand where Mr. Peterson said not to, but I wanted it smooth! Then he shows me how the sanding makes the joints not come together and I understand why it isn’t such a good idea to sand those parts. I pretty much ruin the bench, a Christmas gift to mom. Thinking about the bench all lopsided from sanding, I slump in the hall on the way to the bus. My forehead sweats from the green hat. My whole body is hot.

“Hey!” Patrice comes up next to me but I don’t slow down. “What’s your malfunction?”

“Where’ve you been?” I ask.

She smiles wide to reveal brace brackets glued to her teeth. “Then my mom took me to out for lunch.”

“Good for you.” I walk on. She follows. I can feel her arm brush against my side.

Our shoulders collide and it sets off a spark of static that pulls at my fingertips, like when I pushed Makaarim. I really want to be bad. It’s coming. I can feel that bad girl is on her way and cannot stop her. Three students wait to enter the bus. Makaarim comes behind us, tries to hide her face behind her greasy black hair.

“Hi Makaarim.” Stressing the fact that I’m not going to stoop to call her Kim. “You go first.”

She stays put so I gesture with a hand – she flinches – for her to move ahead. She slides one of her white vinyl tennis shoes, then the other, puts her thumb into her mouth. As we walk down the bus aisle I tell Makaarim to keep going.

Patrice pushes me and says, “Don’t mess with her.”

I exaggerate Patrice’s push and fall on Makaarim who falls to her knees.

The driver calls out, “Everything okay back there?”

“Fine,” I shout over my shoulder, grabbing Makaarim’s elbow that is so slender I could gnaw it in two with one snap of my bucked teeth and drop her into a seat. I take the seat behind her and slide over to make room for Patrice but she sits with Makaarim. I ball up a fist and punch the green seat right on the “skool sux” graffiti with all my might. Half way through the bus route, once the throbbing in my knuckles fades, I punch the seat again.

Patrice turns around and rests her chin on the seat back. “My mom wants the label back.”

I grip my Trapper Keeper closer. “I don’t have it.”

“I know it’s there.” She points to my Trapper. “We’re seeing my cousin today so give it.”

I get within an inch of her face and say, “Make me,” then pull back.

She extends her hand. “Give it.”

I open the Trapper, Velcro rips one row at a time. My eyes feel wet but I stuff down tears. I slide the plastic zipper open and hold the label.

“Thank you.” She snatches it and sticks out her tongue. “I’m going to talk with my new friend Kim.”

Makaarim stands and squeezes past Patrice to exit the bus.

My stop is before Patrice’s and although I haven’t gotten off here in a while, I get up to leave without saying anything and feel sure from a pounding in my stomach that it’s the right thing to do.

I stand on the curb. A bus window lowers and Patrice sticks out her head, waves the label sings, “Na na na na na!”

The same assurance I had to push Makaarim rises up in me. The bad girl is back. I have an answer just like when Mr. Berger asks a question and doesn’t call on me but I have to shout out the answer anyway. I must be heard. I tilt my head back and scream at the top of my lungs the word that’s been simmering, ready to boil over. Now is the moment to teach Patrice a lesson. To remind her of the one advantage I have, would always have, over her. Patrice’s mouth flattens and her hand releases the label. The tag floats out the window and down like a maple seed propeller. Relief. Like at the end of an episode of “Dallas” when dad rubs his hands together, satisfied by another satisfying evil plot of J.R. Ewing and reads aloud the closing credit across the screen: “Philip Capice.” Exhaust from the bus chokes out a gray cloud as I race to rescue the label from muddy gutter water.

I let myself into the house through the side garage door, throw the green hat on the recliner and run up to my parent’s bathroom, the master bath mom calls it, and pull from under the sink the delicate detergent mom uses to wash her tired stockings. I scrub the white part of the label gently and lay it across a mauve-colored hand towel to let it dry. I take the dinky hairdryer that sounds like a small plane and wave it across the label. It moves so I hold it in place with a fingertip until the heat gets so bad I can hardly stand it. My nails are on fire. I move copies of Reader’s Digest and Sports Illustrated to get to mom’s sewing kit for her seam ripper. I take off my pants, thighs itch against the mauve-colored toilet seat cover, and remove the stupid stitching that forms the red roses and green thorns on my jeans pockets. My hands move so fast that I miss threads, like when I lace up rental skates at the roller rink and want to hit the floor right now at this moment because I love this song. I want to get to the next thread before I’m through snapping the thread where the seam ripper is pointed now. There’s not enough time. Not enough. Like popcorn on Friday nights or chocolate pudding on Mondays. Want want want. What is next? Oh! The green stems. Nearly there. One leaf gone, the long stem, poof! The next pocket goes as easily. This is so fun to destroy that I have an urge to rip every seam in the house. Start in the closets and move to the sofa and recliner. Remove every thread that connects two pieces of material together. Thread! What color of thread to stitch on the label? Red? Maroon? White? I can’t remember exactly how Calvins look so I pull the white spool of thread and snap it with my teeth just like how Grandma Harriet does. The label is dry. I hold it in one corner and push the needle through the stiff double-binding with the help of a thimble. Thirty stitches in all. I can’t wait to prance around the middle school halls in my first pair of designer jeans. I knot off the thread, clip it with an eye tooth, then jump into my jeans both legs at once and run to the bedroom closet door to see myself in the full-length mirror. The room is dimly lit but I see the cream-colored label. I will be known for owning a pair of Calvins. Oh these? No, I don’t care about them much. Just Calvins.

The garage door grinds open and the rumble of mom’s station wagon pulls into the garage. It’s 4:45. I race back to the bathroom to wind up the hairdryer and throw the seam ripper back into the sewing box and organize the magazines. The house door from the garage closes, keys are put in the dish near the kitchen phone. I scan the bathroom to make sure it’s in apple-pie order, then I get a glimpse from the lower right part of the bathroom mirror of the label and the dark outline of roses on the pocket. The red and green threads are gone but in their place are bright patches of unwashed denim. I removed the threads, sewed on the label and yet the roses rise up and surround the label. My Calvins look fake. A sack of sand feels like it falls across my shoulders. Carpet swooshes and the bedroom doorknob clangs into the closet doorknob.

“Sam? What are you doing in the master bath?”

I peek out of the door into the bedroom and clamp down on my lower lip because I can feel it wants to tremble.

Mom stops, her thin eyebrows draw in. “Is something wrong?”

I shake my head as my stomach pounds the familiar beat that I have once again undone the Earth. Made everything wrong and ugly.

“School okay?”

I nod to avoid talking about shop class and lunchroom. She won’t understand.

She sits at the edge of the bed and removes her brown pumps. Rubs her feet, tan pantyhose sag at the ankles and knees. “Your father and I discussed this hair business at the Harrisons.”

Her feet smell of sweat and vinyl shoes. No air. I put my hands in my back pockets and remember the label and Patrice with her head out the window and the “Na na na na na nas.”

“As much as I don’t like it, your father thinks it’s better for you to go to the Harrisons after school rather than be here all alone. But no hair stuff, okay?”

My lower lip slips out from under my teeth and tears leak. “I’ll stay here.”

“Good grief Sam, you don’t have to cry about it.” She tosses the shoes into the closet, they hit the back wall and split like bowling pins.

“We’re not really.” My throat chokes like it’s swallowing a tennis ball. “Friends anymore.”

Mom puts her foot on the ground and smiles, scratches her head all frizzy from a fresh perm and sighs. “You’ll understand the world someday.”

A steady drip of disappointment into my stomach tells me I already do.

Aimee Vitrak worked for The New York Times online and The Wall Street Journal Europe in Brussels before earning an MFA from Rutgers where she studied with Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Elliott Dark, Tayari Jones and Rachel Hadas. She volunteers at PEN American Center, teaches English Composition at Rutgers, writes and edits for the Overseas Press Club of America and is part of the Neumann Leathers Writers Group. Her work has appeared on PRI’s Studio360 and in The Wall Street Journal, Hard Learner and Quary Literary Magazine. She is originally from Indiana and now resides in Jersey City. www.aimeevitrak.com
6.11 / September 2011